I’m from a single-parent family, just my mum and five children, growing up on council estates in a small city. Despite living in the ‘black area’ I went to a different school from everybody else and found myself to be the only ‘non-white’ sitting in the classroom. The English white children at school and the English ‘non-white’ children after school would often take me to task over whether I considered myself ‘white’ or ‘black’.
Perhaps I thought this was a result of where I lived and where I went to school rather than my parentage, but either way I learned from an early age that such questions contained a great deal of bullshit and were irrelevant to me.
Still, every time there was a nameless African, Asian or some Other in a textbook at school, childish voices would call out: ‘Martin, is that a relation?’ The teachers did nothing, it was so normal that years later at university when people told me that there was no racism at their schools it was hard to see them as anything but stupid. Racism was normal back then, and yet our memories know it wasn’t acceptable. Today inequality and racism have increased rather than decreased; a strange twist sees only our memories acknowledge an inappropriate acceptability of racism that grows evermore unchecked.
Today, when reports reveal that the police stop to harass non-whites as much as twenty-six times more often than the 85% of the population with a lighter skin tone (and Hampshire is one of the worst areas), nobody cares. Senior (black) police officers and (black) equality officers come forth suggesting that their own stats are wrong, yet they maintain increased policing in ‘black areas’.
When they go on to suggest that such statistics are just the outcome of too much paperwork (a ridiculous proposition, and not because I love paperwork) I know that their colour means nothing to me and that their position does even less to protect me. When I say to them that we have witnessed the return of Swamp 81 stop and search tactics, that caused so much harassment and tensions to rise into riots before, they seem to hold back laughter.
Their position matters little to me; their concerns are not mine and they are not interested in protection. Partly this is their own self-indulgence and partly this is the success of a system that has largely succeeded in segregating us along religious, ethnic and gender lines. During the eighties, workshops explained what such different starting points had in common in terms of colonialism, art and oppression. Links were forged. Today Muslims have a problem with ‘Islamophobia’, Afro-Caribbean people have a problem with prison, and we all have a problem with the Polish. The issues are divided and not even theory is allowed to unite them.
While first generation migrants of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are stereotyped as keeping their heads down and trying to fit into the system, later generations forced their way into the system – but for what? So they could stifle the voices opposing institutional and everyday racism? So they could commercialise the concerns of people struggling to live in the face of adversity? It has been said before that that the greatest problem with the anti-racist movement today is that we have lost so many excellent and respected voices to institutionalisation; the voices that could precisely make the links between the Toxteth and Brixton of 1981/1985 and London thirty years later, in 2011 and beyond -the voices we need to hear speak about unreliable and divisive journalism of riots thirty years ago and those today.
While we all share in this loss there are some weird statistics to go alongside, there are less non-white councillors than there were thirty years ago, perhaps suggesting that the old guard are consolidating and holding on to their positions (it doesn’t really suggest this but it’s what I think). So when reports are revealing that there are more black people in prison in the UK proportionately than in America (who have more black people under lock and key than during slavery), I say to the old guard: speak up or make way.
Black History Month, like Notting Hill carnival, was an achievement that came from struggle. The impetus came from the supplementary schools movement when parents wanted to stop feeding their children Eurocentric versions of history. Classes were formed to combat racism, teach relevant history and to positively discuss non-European accomplishments. It was their achievement that they are right to reminisce but the time has come to stop listening to their pacifying voices and start building towards such an achievement of our own.
The month is sometimes criticised for being the one time to bring in the ‘black’ pound, highlighting the point that it a light-hearted moment devoid of the meaningful struggle. I think we are witnessing this most vividly this October in Southampton’s Black History Month when there is nothing on the Black Panthers despite the month coinciding with the 45th year since they were formed, and we see nothing discussing riots.
But the thing that becomes clear from such reminiscing as well as from our everyday lives is that, despite statistics, colour is of little importance. Yes, colour makes for an easy target for the those in power to harass but if we bypass the politician’s and the corporate media’s system of classification we can see that there is more that ties us together than divides us. We are neither ‘white chavs’, ‘black thugs’, or ‘the aspiring middle class’ so often portrayed. We are all being fucked. Ever since I can remember I have loved the words of one civil rights activist in particular:
If you’re not careful, the newspaper will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people doing the oppressingMalcolm X
Screenings begin on Tuesday 4th October (7:30, Lecture Theatre A, Nuffield) for Black History Month. The first concentrates on the Brixton Riots thirty years ago and there will be a chance to discuss similarities and differences with this year’s riots.